Downtown South Vancouver

Post by Mike Klassen in

8 comments

Vancouver South's downtown? Fraser Street & 49th Avenue has come alive
South Vancouver's downtown? Fraser Street & 49th Avenue has come alive (see slideshow)

From 1892 to 1929 when it merged with the Cities of Vancouver and Point Grey, South Vancouver was its own municipality. Today there is still a lot of evidence of that separation from its northern cousins (by north we mean north of the Ridgeway that runs along 37th Avenue, but the border ran along 16th avenue).

You can do a lot of digging on the history of South Vancouver, but the definitive source of these things has always been the admirable Chuck Davis. In his fantastic website at vancouverhistory.ca you can find out endless facts about the beginning of our little town on Canada's wet coast. Here's one passage on South Vancouver:

There was a time when the southern boundary of Vancouver was 16th Avenue. To the south was, appropriately, the huge municipality of South Vancouver. In 1908 a big chunk of South Vancouver seceded and called itself Point Grey.

The two places were quite different. South Vancouver could be called a "blue collar" suburb, whereas the Canadian Pacific Railway owned a third of Point Grey and intended to make its property as posh as possible. So when a local real estate boom collapsed about 1913 the fates of the two towns were different. South Vancouver ran into severe financial difficulties and from 1918 to 1923 had to be administered by the provincial government. Point Grey struggled through.

A push for amalgamation with Vancouver (which had been tried before) began and was approved by both South Vancouver and Point Grey. On January 1, 1929 the new city—with a population of about 240,000—was born. And on January 2—exactly 77 years ago today—the first meeting of its city council was held. The new mayor, W.H. Malkin, was now the head of Canada’s third largest city.

South Vancouver has always been disconnected from the north side, and it is still so today. A political map would show you this. The NPA dominates the south and west sides in voting, and centre and centre-right politicians most often carry the day on this side of town, Ujjal Dosanjh (who might be considered a "conservative" by NDP standards) notwithstanding.

When I sat on the Vancouver City Planning Commission we did some initial brainstorming for our work-plan, and it was then I proposed we take a closer look at strengthening the lot of the south side. I regularly heard complaints about a "lack of focus" to this expansive and diverse part of Vancouver. If you were an outside observer of the city you'd wonder if we all lived within a few clicks of False Creek, such is the emphasis we place on the north side.

Despite the considered efforts of the Marpole BIA to concentrate some of the planning department's attention on their historical neighbourhood, I think the real attention must go to the new hub of the south side, Fraser Street at 49th Avenue, also known as South Hill.

In fact, a new downtown is emerging in this part of the city, but you'd hardly know it if you spent any time at 12th & Cambie. What prompted this blog entry was a conversation had over wine in my backyard. A friend who stopped to grab a coffee late one evening at the Starbucks at 49th & Fraser commented she couldn't believe the buzz on the streets at 10pm on a weeknight.

"It was unbelievable," she remarked. "It was like being on Davie Street or in Yaletown. The streets were packed. The coffee shop had a line up. People were queued for the buses. I thought I was in another city." Amazingly, the community is situated nowhere near Skytrain nor the new Canada Line, and only it's served by criss-crossing bus lines.

The City of Vancouver Planning Department led by Brent Toderian has what it calls the Neighbourhood Centres program. As laudable as it is, Neighbourhood Centres has become a victim of political chicanery by a few, especially in the Norquay neighbourhood. One protester has made it his job to paper the community with fear-mongering misinformation, and endless letters to community newspapers. Frankly, the Planning Department was not prepared for the onslaught, and they practically buckled from the intimidation.

Part of the problem of the program was that the terms of reference (TOR) for deciding the order which the centres would be chosen were not flexible enough. According the TOR Neighbourhood Centres were...

invented in CityPlan to describe bringing together housing, jobs, shopping, services, and a public "heart" in a geographic location--noting that there was no one prototype, and that each community would customize the idea.

Using their metrics and a dollop of political common sense they carefully mapped out a list of boroughs (Fraser/South Hill is "L" on this list) that would attract special attention (and dedicated planning staff) where they would attempt to improve shopping, housing and public realm. If you were on the bottom of the list, you'd probably old and retired before the city came to help develop your neighbourhood centre.

The first neighbourhood centre was begun at Kingsway and Knight Street, and it has not entirely been a shining success. In spite of a new library and a soon to be opened grocery store, other commercial development in the area has been virtually non-existent.

Recently the Planning Department invited a speaker to come and comment on the city's work. During a Q&A Toderian supposedly asked what this speaker thought the city could do better. "Your downtown is great," was the response back, "but it's time you focused on the neighbourhoods outside of your core."

The changes happening at Fraser Street & 49th Avenue (full disclosure, I live just over 20 blocks from here, but not in the immediate community) have happened much more organically. On that corner are THREE banks. One of them recently expanded their hours to accommodate demand - yes, a bank did this. There is a local library, a video rental store and great grocery shopping among other services. The restaurants are passable but the coffee joints are attractive, and they just opened (horrors!) a new private liquor store in the area.

There is more hustle and bustle on this corner at all hours than many other parts of the city. It must also be pointed out that their is a completely unique diversity here seen almost nowhere else. It's known that the Chinese and South Asian community have not mixed well around Vancouver, but here it happens without complaint. Shops run by South Asians serve local Chinese families and visa-versa. Other ethnic groups such as Filipinos, Afghans and of course sundry Europeans young and old fill the streets.

Is it time for Vancouver to re-focus the Neighbourhood Centres program to respond to this kind of flux? Vancouver's south side has long been the "ugly kid sister" when it comes to how the city grows. It certainly deserves more love and attention from staff and from City Council. Maybe the bourgeoning city centre at Fraser and 49th Avenue presents that opportunity.

Take the CityCaucus.com poll: Does City Hall ignore Vancouver's south side when compared to the north?

8 Comments

I'm not sure anyone in the planning dept has ever ventured south of 16th or east of Main, so they're most likely not even aware that there's a city there...

You know what... the city should not forget or treat Victoria Drive lightly (especially at where most of the best shops are) on the streets intersecting 41st to 54th Avenues. Victoria Drive, in my view, has a lot of potential just like Fraser Street. It has London Drugs as the main big store anchored there, at least 4 banks (Royal Bank, Vancity, CIBC, and BMO), several coffee shops, a variety of Asian, European and South American food, and plus I'd like to think of that area as "the Drive of Royalty". Victoria Drive, after all was named after Queen Victoria (and the City of Victoria), so it makes sense that this area is no small deal. Vic Drive, is rich in character as any other street and I would think that it can be compared with Fraser Street too.

G, you're exactly right that Victoria Drive has become an exciting and busy part of the city. It differs in several subtle ways that I'll leave it to others to either agree with or debate.

First, some of the dynamism on the street is lost late in the evenings over there. With the exception of London Drugs, which is one of the city's absolutely worst examples of urban design, the streets are barren at night. I'll give you that a few Chinese food restaurants are busy, but everyone drives to those venues.

Second, when compared to Vic Drive, Fraser Street is far more diverse. One of the great challenges of the city is having our diverse communities connect. On Fraser Street you witness the plurality of Vancouver everywhere you look.

It's extremely interesting that this community grew despite the lack of large scale transportation infrastructure. While there are a lot of drivers down here, there's not a lot of free street parking. There's great room down here for growth, if the neighbourhood will welcome it.

Mike,

What you said was right, but your comments are, in my view, all the more the arguments that we need to attract more people to the area to keep Victoria Drive alive both day AND night. If Victoria Drive is alive at day, then we already have the base to improve on it and to make it more dynamic and attractive for people to come in the evenings as well. I don't disagree with the fact that Fraser can become the downtown of South Vancouver. I actually like the idea. Just that Victoria Drive is a significant street and has the potential to be Robson Street of South Van. Victoria Drive BIA is already working to improve and beautify the streets but I think the Planning Dept. needs to start paying attention and give some real support.

In terms of parking, yes space is a premium, but we can encourage a more of a walking atmosphere for shoppers. Or the city can start creating more parking spaces for people to come. I am sure business owners and residents would love more people to come down and walk around, shop and enjoy the views of the mountains up north.

All this, in the very near future, I would like to see some more upscale stores to open here to add some more flare to the drive. :)

Stubbled across this post by accident but I had to post after reading it. I couldn't agree more with your comments about Norquay Village, such a travesty that an area with so much potential is being kept back by Joseph Jones and his small band of loons.
I wish the planning dept all the luck as they need it as does the area.

people are shopping where they can avoid parking meters. we are getting our shopper closer to the malls of marine drive and richmond.

South Vancouver is so off the radar of City Hall that it takes very concerted efforts to get noticed. No senior's centre in an area with the most seniors while there are 7 west of Main Street. Limited services for youth in the fastest growing child and youth neighbourhood because it is not the downtown east side.

There are many city bureaucrats and politicans who's heads need a shake. They are scared of shifting resources even if the demographics demand it.

Vancouver extends beyond 16th Avenue or Downtown.

I have a laundromat at Victoria and 42nd, and I must agree with some of the comments that during the day Victoria Drive is very busy, but then everything dies down after 6pm. I had plans to create a 24-hour luandry service, but because the area goes dead so early, I do not have the urge to do it anymore.

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You may want to contact the A's Coin Laundromat on Victoria drive and 42nd. They do pick up and drop-off services (also Dry cleaning).
Our Drop-off service is the best in town: $0.70 per pound.

This is our address and contact:

5780 Victoria Drive, Vancouver BC, V5P 3W7
Call either Francis or Victoria at 604-569-1506 for same day Pick up and Drop off service.

They are opened 7 days a week from 10am to 7 pm.

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